Arbitrary Arbitron

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This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat on KCRW.

We live in the most technologically advanced age in history. With new discoveries knocking on our door daily, it's clear that we need to continually refine our means to accommodate these changing environments. Absolutely no one is immune from obsolescence.

One area that really needs updating is our radio ratings services. Commercial radio stations earn their incomes selling advertising on the air. The ad rates for a station are primarily determined by the size of the listening audience, as measured by the Arbitron ratings service. Higher ratings mean more listeners at a station, and more listeners mean higher advertising rates.

Arbitron is the most accepted ratings service in the business and they've been polling the American population on what radio they listen to for a very long time. Their preferred method of polling involves calling the general public at home and asking them to keep a diary of what stations they listen to. Arbitron then and compiles the results of the diary and releases the totals to the industry on a quarterly basis. The results can take a station to #1 or to its knees.

But there's one glitch. Arbitron hasn't adjusted their methodology to meet changes in technology and therefore, the ratings have been affected. A perfect example of this is the ratings of alternative rock radio, which is geared for men, ages 18 to 24. In the last few years, the Arbitron numbers for alternative rock radio has been sliding downwards noticeably. In fact, several key alternative rock stations in major markets have recently changed formats in an effort to improve their ratings and build their revenue.

Though it's not the only factor, what's becoming clear is that Arbitron's methods may be a key element in the ratings decline. In the last few years, many males in that demographic stopped using their land line home phones, and made their cell phone the only phone service in the household. Because Arbitron can't call cell phones for polling (they are prohibited by law), it would appear that many males 18-24 are no longer listening to alternative rock radio. But Arbitron's old fashioned polling system is clearly skewing the results.

A lot of radio stations are fed up with this outdated polling methodology. The economics are too precarious to allow that kind of margin for error. To Aribtron's credit, they are attempting to rectify the situation by providing financial incentives for males of that age range, and offer diary entries on the web.

Unfortunately, the damage is probably already done. Once a rating or voting system is called into question, it's very difficult to keep confidence up. This week Clear Channel began to solicit proposals from other ratings organizations to see what Arbitron's competitors might offer. Honestly, with a monopoly on so many radio stations, whatever ratings service Clear Channel chooses, chances are, that service will become the service of record.

Regardless of the outcome, make no mistake about it. Radio ratings in the commercial world are big business, and if the business is not taking care of business, expect a major reorganization.

This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat on KCRW.